The Tragic History of RC Cola

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Who drinks RC Cola, anyway?

It’s a question Coke and Pepsi drinkers have been asking for decades. In the prolonged marketing battle that began in the '70s and saw the beloved major brands duke it out via celebrity endorsements, rewards promotions (Pepsi Stuff, anyone?), an onslaught of advertisements, and even a race into space, RC Cola remained on the sidelines, a quiet blue and red can that seemed content to simply be.

Fact is, RC has had loyal fans throughout its more than 100-year history. Its roots go deep in the south, where drinking one with a Moon Pie is a blue-collar tradition that’s still popular today. There’s even a song that celebrates the pairing. RC also has a presence internationally, in countries such as Estonia, Thailand, and Iceland. It’s currently one of the top-selling soda brands in the Philippines.

But the number of RC drinkers could have been much, much higher. In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.

Given its long and pioneering history, RC deserved to be more than the middling soda brand it is today. In an industry that lives and dies by marketing, RC didn’t do nearly enough. But its failure wasn’t just due to lack of initiative. It was also a case of supremely bad luck, bad judgment, and a fateful ingredient known as cyclamate.

Like its main rival, Coca-Cola, RC Cola also started in Georgia, in the town of Columbus. It was a disagreement with Coca-Cola, in fact, that led a man named Claud Hatcher to develop what would become the Royal Crown Cola Company. Hatcher was a pharmacist and a grocery wholesaler who, along with his father, ran the Hatcher Grocery Company. In the early 1900s, the Hatchers sold a lot of Coca-Cola to their customers—so much, that Claud felt he was entitled to a discount or some sort of commission acknowledging his contribution to the company. The local Coke representative, however, denied the request, knowing full well Coke was the most popular soda in the country and not one to be pushed around by its customers. Frustrated, Hatcher told the representative he’d purchased his last case of Coca-Cola, and vowed to develop his own brand.

After months spent tinkering in the basement of Hatcher Grocery, Claud came up with Royal Crown Ginger Ale, an effervescent alternative to Coke’s caramel-colored (and formerly cocaine-laced) bestseller. The drink, with its regal-sounding name, proved quite popular, and soon Hatcher and his father ditched the grocery gig to become full-time soda bottlers. Claud’s next development was Chero-Cola, a cherry-flavored cola that would grow the company into a legitimate soda maker and, inevitably, put him in direct competition with the brand he used to sell.

In the early 1900s, like today, Coca-Cola was far and away the most profitable soda company in the United States. And with that success came numerous imitators eager to cash in on the market it had created. According to Tristan Donovan, author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, these included knockoffs like Candy-Cola, Kos-Kola, and Coke-Ola. There was even a cola called Klu Ko Kolo, made to attract those suddenly interested in the Ku Klux Klan after the group was featured in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. Coke was hardly amused. To maintain its dominance in the industry, the company began suing these imitators for trademark infringement. Over the next three decades, Coca-Cola sued more than 500 copycat manufacturers, according to Donovan, and won more often than not.

Caught in the crosshairs were Claud Hatcher and Chero-Cola, which Coke argued could not use the term “cola” in its name. Hatcher fought the lawsuit, and continued to fight it for several years while simultaneously building Chero-Cola’s distribution to more than 700 franchise bottlers. His soda was no mere imitator, Hatcher would claim time and again, and he would not be bullied out of business.

In 1923, a judge ruled in Coca-Cola’s favor, saying that Chero-Cola was in violation of Coke’s trademark. That meant Hatcher had to drop “cola” from his company’s name, thereby costing him valuable brand recognition. A drink called “Chero” just didn’t sound the same, and sure enough, Chero sales slipped. After a few years Hatcher changed the company’s name to that of his most popular fruit drink, Nehi (pronounced “knee-high”).

The Great Depression put a dent in Nehi’s sales, just as it did for other soda companies. To make matters worse, Claud Hatcher died in 1933, leaving Nehi in the hands of its sales director, H.R. Mott. What looked to be a disaster, though, turned out to be just the opportunity the company needed. Mott was a shrewd businessman. Immediately after taking over, he jettisoned poor-performing drinks and focused the company’s efforts on top sellers. He also re-introduced Chero-Cola without the cherry flavoring, and under a new name—one that, after two turbulent decades, harkened back to the company’s beginnings. In 1934, Nehi came out with Royal Crown, and over the next several years its sales increased tenfold.

A 1943 ad featuring Rita Hayworth. Jose Roitberg via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The middle of the 20th century brought one win after another for Nehi. In 1944, the courts ruled that Coke did not, in fact, own the word “cola,” thus allowing Royal Crown to become Royal Crown Cola, or RC Cola. With nationwide distribution and sales on the up and up, Nehi shoveled money into print and television ads featuring stars like Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and Lucille Ball. “You Bet RC Tastes Best!” magazine ads crowed. And this wasn’t just an empty boast: Nehi had staged public taste tests across the country pitting RC against competitors Coke and Pepsi, and declared itself the winner. It was the first time a beverage company had ever done such a promotion. Whether or not the tests were rigged in some way is up for debate; what mattered was that people believed them.

Slowly, steadily, RC muscled its way into soda fountains and onto grocery store shelves. To stay top-of-mind with consumers, it continued to innovate. In 1954, it became the first company to nationally distribute soda in aluminum cans. Shortly after, it began selling soda in 16-ounce bottles as an alternative size for thirsty fans. In 1959, Nehi changed its name to match its bestselling product, becoming the Royal Crown Cola Company.

But while Royal Crown had made significant progress, it would continue to trail Coke and Pepsi so long as it continued to sell a similar product. What it needed was something new. What it needed was a game changer.

In 1952, the founder of a sanitarium in Williamsburg, Brooklyn named Hyman Kirsch invented a sugar-free soda called No-Cal. Available in ginger ale and black cherry, No-Cal was made specifically for patients in Kirsch's sanitarium who were either diabetic or suffering from heart ailments. Kirsch quickly discovered that his drink had a much wider appeal, and along with his son began making other flavors, like chocolate, root beer, and cherry. The two sold No-Cal to local stores and quickly built up a distribution network that extended throughout New York and the northeast. Since Kirsch wasn’t a businessman, however, he struggled to expand beyond the regional market. He also continued marketing No-Cal mainly toward diabetic customers, further limiting his reach.

Kirsch’s success caught the eye of the Royal Crown Cola Company. In the mid '50s, it began secretly developing its own diet soft drink—one that would appeal not just to diabetics, but to an entire nation of increasingly calorie-conscious consumers. While other food and beverage companies continued to push everything sweet, salty, and delicious, RC recognized a budding demand for healthier choices.

After a few years RC came out with Diet Rite, a drink that the company believed would be the breakthrough it so desperately needed. Test markets had emphatically confirmed its appeal. One, in South Carolina, saw supermarket managers clamoring for the product. “In Greenville, S.C., where we had been running a poor third behind Coke and Pepsi, we actually had grocery store managers getting into their cars and chasing down RC trucks to get Diet Rite on their shelves,” one RC rep noted.

What could cause such a reaction? It wasn’t just that Diet Rite was nearly calorie-free—it’s that it was nearly calorie-free and tasted strikingly similar to the real thing. The key ingredient—the one Kirsch had first used in No-Cal—was an alternative sweetener called cyclamate that was 30 times sweeter than sugar. First developed by a student at the University of Illinois in 1937, it was initially sold as a tabletop sweetener. In 1958, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval, paving the way for its use as a mass-market ingredient. The timing couldn’t have been better for Royal Crown.

In a particularly shrewd bit of marketing, the company made sure to sell Diet Rite just like real cola: In the same slender bottles for a nickel each, or as a six pack. It also made sure to put the word “cola” on its labels. Consumers wanted something different, RC executives figured, but not too different.

When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

A 1967 ad featuring ballet dancer Tanya Morgan. Mid-Century Pretty via Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Coke and Pepsi were caught completely off guard. Not only had they not anticipated the mainstream appeal of diet soda, they didn’t even have anything in the pipeline. Within a year, Coke would scramble to release TaB, which it also sweetened with cyclamate. Pepsi responded with Patio Cola, a diet soda aimed at women that also contained cyclamate, and which it would soon rebrand as Diet Pepsi. There were, predictably, numerous other fast followers to the market, including long-forgotten brands like LoLo, Coolo-Coolo, and Bubble-Up. In 1965, Coke came out with a citrus-flavored diet soda called Fresca.

None of them, however, could catch Diet Rite, which continued to build market share for Royal Crown Cola.

“RC had the dominant diet cola brand, and that was a very big deal,” Tristan Donovan tells mental_floss. “For RC, there was this sense of, ‘finally, we’ve broken through.’”

By the late '60s, Royal Crown owned 10 percent of the soda market. That was far from dominating, but it was still a very respectable figure, and the company was poised for further growth. By all accounts, the company that started in the basement of a small town grocery store was positioned to become a major player in the soda industry.

The rise of diet soda may have delighted soft drink manufacturers and American consumers, but it downright frightened the sugar industry. After decades of pumping its signature product into sodas, here was a comparable beverage that did away with sugar entirely. What if diet sodas continued to grow? What if all sodas became diet sodas? Ever resourceful, the industry searched for legal channels to undermine diet drinks.

In the mid-'60s, it began: the slow trickle of studies suggesting that cyclamate was hazardous. In 1964, a study linked cyclamate to cancer in animals, and raised the possibility that it could have adverse effects on humans. But the authors stopped short of linking the sweetener to specific conditions like cancer or birth defects. Royal Crown president W.H. Glenn dismissed the study as “nothing derogatory,” and other manufacturers echoed that sentiment. As the decade wore on, however, studies made more specific claims. In 1969, the decisive blow against cyclamate came in the form of two studies. One claimed that chicken eggs injected with cyclamate resulted in deformed chicks, while another found that rats given doses of cyclamate showed an increased risk of developing bladder tumors. The studies’ findings, splashed across newspapers and television screens nationwide, implicated cyclamate as a very dangerous ingredient.

“Everyone began saying, ‘Oh my god, diet soda’s going to give you cancer!’” Donovan says. “The market collapsed almost instantly.”

The FDA, meanwhile, had no choice but to remove its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) classification for cyclamate. The diet soda industry went into a tailspin, plummeting from 20 percent of the market to less than 3 percent. Manufacturers frantically reformulated their drinks and tried to reassure consumers, all to no avail. Overnight, the diet soda craze had come to a standstill.

The downturn hit Royal Crown particularly hard. Diet Rite had been its star performer, the one advantage it had over Coke and Pepsi. Without it, all the company had was the nation’s third favorite cola, which on its own wasn’t going to gain any ground on its rivals. After a few weeks, the company re-released Diet Rite, this time sweetened with saccharine. But the taste—saccharine has a notoriously metallic tinge to it—wasn’t the same, and many people weren’t ready to come back to diet drinks anyway. Eventually, Coke and Pepsi re-entered the market with better formulas and marketing, and once again, Royal Crown Cola had merely served as the guinea pig for its competitors.

According to Donovan, the cyclamate backlash was the direct result of the sugar industry’s meddling. That lobby, he said, provided $600,000 in funding for the studies that doomed cyclamate, both of which are now seen as controversial because they involved exposing animals to much higher levels of the ingredient than any Diet Rite or TaB drinker could ever possibly imbibe. To get the same amount of cyclamate as the rats in one of the studies, for instance, you’d have to drink more than 500 diet drinks a day. Today, cyclamate is widely used as a sweetener in countries like Australia, South Africa, and throughout the European Union. Scientists around the world say it's safe for consumption, yet the results of the 1969 studies still linger. The United States, Japan, and 45 other countries have upheld their ban on the additive.

How could such dubious results be admissible? Donovan pointed to a legal loophole called the Delaney Clause, an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 established by a senator named James Delaney, who investigated insecticides and carcinogens in the food industry in the late '50s. The clause required the FDA to ban any additive found to “induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” As well-meaning as the Delaney Clause was, it didn’t outline restrictions on the amount of a certain ingredient that could be tested. No matter if it was a granule or a gallon, if it proved hazardous to human or animal health, the ingredient had to be pulled.

“The Delaney Clause was a very well-intentioned but poorly thought-out law,” Donovan says.

As unfortunate as Royal Crown’s luck was, its response in the years that followed didn’t help matters. Vowing to never again put so many resources behind a single product, the company began to diversify. It bought two fruit juice manufacturers, Texsun and Adams Packing. Then it took the truly bizarre step of purchasing seven home furnishing companies. What, exactly, the soda maker saw in that industry is unclear, but it must have been pretty compelling: By the mid-'70s, nearly a quarter of Royal Crown Cola’s business was tied up in making mirrors, picture frames, floor tiles, and cabinets.

The downhill slide accelerated. In 1976, Royal Crown bought the fast-food chain Arby’s. That acquisition, at least, made some sense, as it would give the company an outlet for its fountain sodas. But Royal Crown mismanaged the chain, introducing burgers and other conventional fast-food fare to a company that had made its name with roast beef sandwiches. In 1984, Victor Posner, a billionaire businessman who specialized in corporate takeovers, acquired Royal Crown, which by this time had dropped the “cola” in its name to become Royal Crown Companies. In the nine years Posner owned Royal Crown, he slashed the company’s marketing budget and battled executives over the company’s direction. In 1987, the government convicted him on tax evasion charges, and soon after investigated him for insider trading.

While Royal Crown was busy cutting costs and making lampshades, Coca-Cola and Pepsi were dumping millions into an unprecedented marketing arms race. Beginning in the mid-'70s, the two began one-upping each other with taste tests, rewards programs, TV ads, new products, and numerous other promotions. Pepsi unveiled Pepsi Stuff; Coke countered with Coke Rewards. Coke put Bill Cosby in its ads; Pepsi answered with the King of Pop. In 1985, after it found out that Coke was putting a specially engineered Coke can aboard the Challenger space shuttle, Pepsi quickly rigged up its own can and pressured NASA into letting it onboard. Neither can worked the way it was supposed to, and the astronauts complained about the gimmick. But no matter: The two companies had been to outer space.

From the consumer perspective, the cola wars looked to be two giants bent on destroying each other. The reality, though, was that both of them benefited from the exposure.

“The cola wars took sales away from any brands that weren’t Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” Donovan says. “At this point, nobody is even thinking about RC because they’re not in this race.”

With its limited ad budget, RC came out with some standard-issue TV spots showing people chugging from a bottle before pausing to smile at the camera. There were even some mildly amusing ads, including one in which prisoners “sentenced to a life of Coke or Pepsi” snuck cans and bottles of RC into their cells.

To most people, though, the more than 100-year-old brand was largely invisible.

An Onion headline from 1997 seemed to sum things up: "RC Cola Celebrates 10th Purchase." Through the '80s and into the '90s, Royal Crown continued to lose market share while its two main competitors gobbled it up. The company had a loyal following and national distribution, but in the eyes of a Coke-and-Pepsi nation, it was the loser, the perennial bronze medalist.

Things only got worse for RC. As the two cola giants continued to grow, they inked deals with retailers that guaranteed them ample shelf space. They offered special discounts to supermarkets and began paying slotting fees, a practice that still exists today. (If you’ve ever wondered why Coke and Pepsi dominate the soda aisle, it’s because they’re oftentimes paying for that real estate.)

"[Coke and Pepsi] started carving up the retail market and shutting RC out in the process," Donovan explains. "So not only was RC losing out on advertising, it was losing out on stores as well."

RC tried to wedge its way back into the fight. After the company got out from under Posner’s ownership, it gained a solid advertising and development budget. Its first attempt to jump-start sales came in 1995 with RC Draft, a so-called “premium” soda made with cane sugar. Unfortunately for RC, people didn’t see what was so “premium” about the drink, and within a year it was pulled from shelves. In 2000, Cadbury-Schweppes bought RC, then moved it over to its Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. In the years that followed, RC came out with a few souped-up colas—RC Edge and RC Kick—along with low-calorie options RC Ten and a re-branded Diet RC. None of the new products managed to move the dial, and today no RC product is anywhere near the best-seller charts.

So who drinks RC Cola these days? In addition to its southern fans, the brand has a presence in Chicago, where it’s served at Bears games and at pizzerias throughout the city, which often give out a free liter with orders. According to Encyclopizzeria, that arrangement began back in the '60s, when a creative local bottler got in good with local pie shops, figuring the pairing of RC and deep dish pizza would generate good vibes with customers. It did, and today many a Chicagoan has a soft spot for the underdog cola.

Aside from the Windy City, though, RC’s appeal seems tied to small town America and times gone by. “The company never shook its strictly southern, small-town image,” states the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which chronicles the state’s history. For fans of RC, that image as the overlooked, underappreciated casualty of the cola wars is just what they love about it. It’s the scrappy bargain brand—the un-hyped, unadorned alternative for true cola lovers.

Donovan, for one, believes RC’s narrative would have been much different had the cyclamate ban not happened. Diet Rite’s continued success could have given Royal Crown the confidence—not to mention the funds—needed to market more aggressively and continue innovating. Its name recognition could have grown, and its clout with restaurants and retailers along with it. Could it have joined Coke and Pepsi in the stratosphere of soda sales, or even have overtaken them?

"RC probably wouldn’t have had the resources of Coke or Pepsi," Donovan surmises, "but they could have held their own a lot better."

These days, being a top soda company isn’t something worth bragging about. The entire soft drink industry is declining, and has been for more than a decade as consumers opt for healthier choices. Over the past 20 years, sales of full-calorie soft drinks have fallen by more than 25 percent. Instead of one-upping each other, Coke and Pepsi are scrambling to stay relevant with a nation that’s rejecting their signature beverages. They’re expanding into juices and snacks, developing new zero-calorie soft drinks and dumping millions of dollars into advertising tying their brands to happiness, nostalgia, and other emotions that might transcend any worries about personal health.

Drinking less soda is surely a good thing. But for many people, there will always be something wonderful about a full-calorie, ice-cold cola. Whether it’s an everyday thing or an every-so-often treat, odds are most people will reach for a Coke or Pepsi. But if history had gone just a bit differently, they could be just as easily reaching for an RC Cola.

3 Cold Coffee Treats To Beat The Heat

Mental Floss Video
Mental Floss Video

Loving coffee is a year-round activity, but in the dog days of summer you may not be in the mood for a steaming hot cup of joe. That’s why we asked Eamon Rockey, Director of Beverage Studies at the Institute of Culinary Education, to help us concoct three delicious cold coffee treats.

Coffee tonic is a simple, refreshing alternative when you get sick of plain old iced coffee. Granita di caffè—basically a grown-up snow cone— is an Italian classic. And Eamon’s “milk and honey” take on a Greek frappè is a caffeinated milkshake with just enough sweetness to be addictive.

The recipes all start with cold brew concentrates, which are increasingly available at grocery stores and ensure a consistent product from start to finish. You could also use refrigerated coffee leftover from the morning or any other (preferably strong) iced coffee; you may sacrifice a bit of consistency and flavor, but something tells us they’ll still be delicious.

Coffee Tonic Recipe

Ingredients:

Grady’s Cold Brew Concentrate (or your preferred substitute)
Tonic Water
Ice
Lemon Peel

Instructions:

  1. Pour equal amounts of cold brew concentrate and tonic water into glass.
  2. Add ice and stir.
  3. “Express” (i.e. squeeze to release essential oils) a large piece of lemon peel into glass
  4. Garnish with lemon and serve.

Granita Di Caffè Recipe

Ingredients:

Red Thread Cold Brew Concentrate With a Hint of Chocolate (or your preferred substitute)
Simple Syrup (Optional)
Berries and/or Whipped Cream to Garnish

Instructions:

  1. Pour cold brew concentrate into a freezer safe vessel
  2. Optionally, for a sweeter treat, add ¼ cup simple syrup (50 percent water, 50 percent sugar) and stir
  3. Place into a freezer and let nearly freeze (1-2 hours)
  4. Break up any ice crystals with a fork and place back in freezer for roughly 30 minutes
  5. Repeat step four two or more times, as needed, until the mixture is all icy granules
  6. Alternately, skip steps three to six and leave coffee mixture until frozen (2-3 hours). Scrape vigorously with a fork. You may sacrifice some of the light texture of the other method, but the process is considerably simpler.
  7. Serve with berries or (ideally fresh) whipped cream

“Milk and Honey” Greek Frappè Recipe

Ingredients:

One Half of a Vanilla Bean
3 Tbsp. Heavy Cream
3 Tbsp. Honey
3 Tbsp. Milk
4 oz. Grady’s Cold Brew Concentrate (or your preferred substitute)
Splash of soda water (optional)
Ice

Instructions:

  1. Scrape half of a vanilla bean and add to heavy cream
  2. Make whipped cream by mixing with whisk/hand mixer, or by shaking vigorously in cocktail shaker
  3. Add honey to milk and stir to combine
  4. Add milk/honey mixture to whipped cream and stir
  5. Pour cold brew concentrate and a splash of soda water into glass
  6. Add ice
  7. Top with half of the whipped cream/milk/honey mixture and stir
  8. Garnish with the leftover vanilla bean pod 

14 Freshly-Brewed Facts About Starbucks

Starbucks
Starbucks

When Howard Schultz visited Milan, Italy in 1983 and realized the city was home to more than 1500 coffee bars, a light bulb went off in his head. Four years later, the ambitious Schultz acquired Starbucks—which had previously only sold ground coffee in bags, with no single servings—and proceeded to turn it from a six-store Seattle operation into a global phenomenon. Unlock the secrets of your home away from home with these 14 frothy facts.

1. Starbucks has a ban on smells.

Because aroma is so crucial to the Starbucks experience, Schultz—the company's longtime CEO who retired in 2018 and is now its Chairman Emeritus—laid down the law early on: Nothing can interfere with the smell of their freshly-ground coffee. The stores banned smoking in the late 1980s, years before the practice was commonplace; employees are alsao asked not to wear perfume or cologne [PDF].

2. The Starbucks mermaid used to show nipple.


Jim Forest, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

The siren of the famous Starbucks logo is intended to represent the seductive power of coffee, with her hair tastefully covering any hint of immodesty. But when Starbucks was still a regional chain in 1970s Seattle, their logo was far more candid: The mermaid had fully-exposed breasts. Some customers commented on it, but it didn’t become scandalous until the company began making deliveries and had to put their signage on trucks. Reluctant to traffic in portable nudity, the logo was revised.

3. An immunologist cracked the Starbucks coffee code.

Infectious disease specialist Don Valencia was essentially just goofing off in 1990 when he developed a coffee bean extract that smelled and tasted just like the real thing. After neighbors couldn’t tell the difference between his sample and fresh coffee, he tried it out on a barista. Eventually, word got to Starbucks executives, who hired Valencia in 1993. Using his discovery to branch out into retail sales, Starbucks quickly became a top-seller of bottled coffee and super-premium ice cream—for a time, they even outsold pint-sized king Häagen-Dazs.

4. There have been Starbucks stores made out of old shipping containers.

A Starbucks store made out of a shipping container
Starbucks

In a monument to the company’s eco-friendly attitude, several stores built out of retired shipping containers have opened since 2011. Some use run-off drains to feed rainwater to nearby vegetation; others use local materials such as discarded wooden fencing to complete the job. The recycled storefronts are typically drive-thru only, but video cameras allow patrons to see a friendly barista's face. At 1000 square feet, they’re also smaller than a typical store—and Starbucks has every intention of using that tiny footprint to burrow its way into locations previously thought to be too small to lease.

5. Starbucks managers were forced to play with Mr. Potato Head.

Eager to ramp up efficiency in the face of stiffer competition in 2009, Starbucks dispatched executive Scott Heydon for some updated managerial training. To demonstrate how employees can cut down on idle time behind the counter, Heydon instructed managers to assemble a Mr. Potato Head toy and then put him back in his box in under 45 seconds. At least one supervisor was able to pick up the scattered pieces and re-assemble the spud in under 16 seconds.

6. The Starbucks CIA location is as secretive as you’d expect.

Man drinking coffee and using his laptop
hitmanphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Like most office buildings, the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia runs on caffeine. But it doesn’t run like a typical Starbucks: Baristas undergo background checks and aren't allowed to leave their posts without a CIA escort. Customer names cannot be called out or written on cups due to security concerns. Despite the precautions, it’s still a social atmosphere: According to The Washington Post, one key member of the team that assisted in locating Osama bin Laden was recruited there.

7. The Starbucks employee dress code is very specific.

When Schultz opened his line of Il Giornale espresso bars in 1985, he mandated employees wear the bow ties and crisp white shirts common in Italy. The current dress code [PDF] has relaxed on the Pee-Wee attire but still insists on a certain kind of conformity. Rings cannot have stones; brightly-colored purple or pink hair is not welcome; untucked shirts can’t expose your midsection when bending over; ear gauges should be less than 10mm. Think you're going to sport a face tattoo or septum ring? Mister, the only thing you’re brewing is trouble.

8. California has a Starbucks ski-thru.

Skiers in Squaw Valley, California looking for a caffeine fix don’t have to take off their equipment: the Starbucks at the Gold Coast Resort is open to visitors via a Ski-Thru. They also take orders from the aerial lift. What could be better?

9. Nonfat milk resulted in a Starbucks corporate standoff.

When Howard Behar came to Starbucks as an executive in 1989, he was dismayed to find that many customers had filled out comment cards voicing their desire for nonfat milk. But Schultz and his team had decided they didn’t like the taste and that nonfat wasn’t authentically Italian. Behar argued that customers should get whatever they wanted. Store managers protested, but when Schultz personally witnessed a customer walk out over the lack of options, he relented. Today, it's estimated that half of the company’s cappuccinos and lattes are frothed without fat.

10. You can get a Butterbeer frappucCino at Starbucks (if you know the right way to ask).


RosieTulips, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

The preferred thirst-quencher for Harry Potter fans, Butterbeer isn’t really available outside of the books or the Universal Studios attraction—but you can get a pretty good approximation by requesting a Frappucino with caramel syrup, caramel drizzle, and toffee nut syrup.

11. The round tables at Starbucks may help you feel less lonely.

Feeling self-conscious about sitting in a Starbucks by yourself? Don’t be: the round tables are there to help. The company believes that circular dining areas can make a space feel less empty when compared to the stern edges of a rectangular or square table. They don’t want you to feel alone. So, so alone.

12. The Disney Starbucks has magic chalkboards.

When Starbucks opened at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida, some of the company’s trademark features were tweaked to fit their magical affiliation. The chalkboard was re-imagined as a 70-inch touch screen that can render illustrations in real time. Customers can also “draw” on the screen using their fingers, take selfies, and see what visitors in Disney’s Anaheim Starbucks are up to.

13. Some Starbucks stores have the technology for the greatest cup of coffee possible.

Starbucks cares a great deal about serving an excellent cup of coffee. Employees never let brewed pots sit for more than 30 minutes, and stores use no artificially-flavored grounds. The next giant leap in bean prep might be the Clover, a proprietary machine engineered by Stanford that costs $13,000 to install and uses a vacuum and elevator system to shoot coffee grounds upward with precision water temperatures the result is said to be a peerless experience. If you’re lucky enough to be near a store that has one, expect to pay up to $5 a cup.

14. Customers think Starbucks gives away newspapers. It doesn't. Now it doesn't sell them, either.

For years, many Starbucks locations provided newspapers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to customers. That practice stopped in September 2019. Why? People believed the papers were provided as a gratuity and left them in a pile or walked out with a paper without paying.

Additional Sources: Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time.

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